Most of the time, people associate the word “bacteria” with germs, illness or something else that’s bad for your health. But probiotics—strains of beneficial bacteria that reside in the intestinal tract—are actually good for you. Probiotics are best known for their role in digestive health, but research has shown that they can help many other aspects of your health. Here’s some of the evidence.
Health Benefits of Probiotics
Immunity. Beneficial bacteria in your intestines crowd out harmful bacteria and have a direct effect on your immune response. Unfortunately, changes in gut bacteria occur as we age—particularly a decline in Bifidobacteria, which inhibit pathogenic microbes. This increases susceptibility to colds, flu and infections. Probiotics can help restore it.
In one study, 475 healthy men and women who did not get flu shots received either a vitamin/mineral combined with a probiotic supplement or a placebo daily for five and a half months during the winter and spring. All participants reported any cold, flu or respiratory symptoms. The group taking the vitamin/mineral/probiotic combination experienced 25 percent fewer influenza symptoms, 19 percent fewer cold symptoms and 50 percent fewer days with a fever than the placebo group.
The health benefits of probiotics are also helpful if you succumb to illness and are prescribed an antibiotic. Antibiotics kill the beneficial bacteria along with the harmful. When these protective bacteria are wiped out, pathogenic bacteria and other organisms move in. This can cause diarrhea, as well as yeast overgrowth in the vagina and intestines. That’s why I recommend avoiding antibiotics whenever possible. But if you must take an antibiotic, probiotics can help offset these negative side effects.
Gastrointestinal health. The health benefits of probiotics not only reduce antibiotic-associated diarrhea, they’re helpful for diarrhea and constipation associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and for ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s and other inflammatory bowel diseases.
Obesity. Research suggests that probiotics may help fight the battle of the bulge. The bacteria that reside in your intestinal tract are involved in nutrient uptake and energy regulation. Studies reveal that in obese humans and animals, these bacteria extract and absorb more calories from food and store them in fat cells. Distinct differences have also been noted in the microbial communities of obese and thin people. The health benefits of probiotics are no magic bullet for weight loss, but supporting your gut bacteria appears to reduce inflammation and other markers of obesity.
Diabetes. Supplemental probiotics have been shown to delay the onset of glucose intolerance in animals, and, in a 2010 human study, L. acidophilus supplements had a positive effect on insulin sensitivity. Furthermore, some researchers found that people with type 2 diabetes have different gut bacteria than those without diabetes.
Depression and anxiety. Some research has found that when your gut bacteria are out of balance (dysbiosis), it can affect your mood. For example, anxiety gives us butterflies and stress ties our stomach in knots. Thanks to the gut-brain connection, Lactobacillus and perhaps other strains appear to tone down the stress response and improve anxiety and depression.
Skin. The journal Gut Pathogens also published an article highlighting the links between intestinal bacteria, mood and acne. The authors note that there is an established connection between skin conditions and mood disorders (acne is associated with depression and anxiety), and that acne is also linked with gastrointestinal problems (adolescents with acne are at higher risk for several GI symptoms). In other words, your brain, skin and immune system are all physiologically intertwined, mediated by gut bacteria. Other studies have found links between intestinal bacteria and psoriasis.
Oral health. Research suggests the health benefits of probiotic supplements may help control bad breath and promote better oral health overall. More specifically, Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and other strains help curb growth of bacteria such as Streptococcus mutans that contribute to bad breath, cavities and gum problems.
So how can you maintain or increase the amount of probiotics in your body? First, eat plenty of prebiotics, indigestible carbohydrates that beneficial bacteria thrive on. Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, onions, artichokes, whole grains and garlic, in particular, stimulate the growth of gut flora. Also consume fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi and pickled vegetables. They contain live, healthy bacteria that help populate the intestinal tract.
Second, take a probiotic supplement. Popular strains of probiotics are Lactobacillus (L. acidophilus, L. plantarum, and L. rhamnosus), Bifidobacteria (B. bifidum and B. longum) and Saccharomyces boulardii (a yeast used to treat diarrhea). When selecting a probiotics supplement look for one that not only protects these delicate “good” bacteria, but also ensures they reach your entire intestinal tract, amplifying the health benefits of the probiotics. One delivery system that works extremely well is BIO-tract®. Use as directed.
Now it’s your turn: Do you take probiotics?